Works are listed below not according to any order in which I encountered the stories and when they sent me reeling. It is obvious that 20th-century white male writers were overwhelmingly significant to my early reading patterns and reelings-in to the short story form. The momentum gathered along these bookshelves means that I now spin away from them.
A business of ferrets, a skulk of foxes, a drudgery of lexicographers: everybody loves an evocative collective noun. It was for this most chirpheaded of reasons that I clocked this slim, red-spined Sylph Edition in a secondhand bookshop. Vladislavić was not a name I recognized and it was purely because of the pamphlet’s pleasing title, the fact its pages had a beautiful weight to them and the wonderful illustrations — watercolour splashes across technical illustrations from the Duden Bildwörterbuch‘ pictorial dictionary, printed on tracing paper — that my idle curiosity became a more committed browsing. By the end of the first paragraph, my jaw was on the floor.
A strange narrator explores the strange limits of a strange new world: indexed language itself. This short story has all the charge of a murder mystery, the playful wince and winch of Carrollian rabbitholes and the whirl of a prose-poem. ‘A Labour of Moles’ changed my relationship to the alphabet.
Cahier Series #17, published by University of Chicago Press through Sylph Editions with the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris in 2012
I was pronouncing ‘Guy’ incorrectly, the librarian told me. Still getting used to being comfortable with choosing my own etiquette for approaching collections, I read the title story first as a light bedtime treat. I read it again. I kept reading under my covers with a torch until four in the morning, the first time I had ever seen that time on a clock. The underside of my duvet was an alpine slope, the shadows in my curtains were the trunks of sycamores and rifle butts, a knot of wood on my desk was a screaming, hopeless mouth. Nowadays perhaps I would attempt to categorize the stories as psychological thrillers or ghost stories or tight, taut, social commentaries—all I knew at the time was that the final sentence of ‘The Mountain Inn’ reversed the flow of blood in my veins and that the next day when I saw a large-eyed, soft-pawed dog chasing after a ball in the park, I burst into tears and would not be consoled.
Translated by H. N. P. Sloman. Found in a soft, green 1957 Penguin books with a far too sedate cover, available to read online here
‘Seconds after telling a fellow soldier to “Put that bloody cigarette out,” Munro was shot through the head by an enemy sniper aiming for the lit cigarette.’ Every single one of H. H. Munro’s short stories is a study in how to handle delight, frailty, cruelty and absurdity with gorgeous lucid prose. ‘The Schartz-Metterklume Method’ is an unskittish but nose-thumbing, joyful sketch that covers trust, power, a fraudulent governess and merely THE WAYS BY WHICH OUR ENGAGEMENT WITH HISTORY CAN UNRAVEL.
As a side-note: the writer and composer Timothy Thornton has mentioned a couple of times that he would like to make an opera based on Saki’s short stories and sometimes I think I live only to see this happen.
Generally I’d say one should read Nabokov to experience language as a release of birds but my relationship to ‘Razor’ is not really representative of this. I had been reading pieces of his thick, lush prose and feeling heady with the sheer exhilaration of it—thank god for short stories, where you can sustain momentary whiplash from a plot or sentence and pretend it’s giddiness. This story centres on the chance encounter of two old acquaintances, and a shift of power that occurs in front of a mirror and beneath a lathered brush.
Reading ‘Razor’ is to feel the testing of metal across your throat.
First published, in Russian, as ‘Britva’ in 1926. Read in Collected Stories as part of Penguin Modern Classics in 2001. Translated by Dmitri Nabokov, the writer’s son, in 1995
Possibly sneaking in a prose-poem here. Studied moments, controlled digression, stopped time: after reading Ponge, I will always and never see an orange in the same way, and care about seeing as transformation.
Available here, and first read as part of a handwritten note from a friend who wrote the letter e very oddly
To my mind, nothing can convey flares of tenderness like a short story (…possibly this says more about me than I’d like) and no-one conveys flares of tenderness like Ali Smith. ‘The Second Person’ feels as personal as an anecdote and as universal as a fable, wheeling without ever being wheedling and ridiculous without being laughable. That’s what every great love story should be, and this one also features accordion shops and Ella Fitzgerald. Prat-fall into love with Smith’s light touch and then read everything else by her right now right now right now.
(First Collected in The First Person and Other Stories, Hamish Hamilton, 2008. First published in and available to read on Prospect, 2005, here)
Do you enjoy the taste of adventure? Do you like wanderlust, curiosity, self-directed exploration? Do you like counting? Do you like purpose draining away? Do you like a kaleidoscopic sense of slow dread? Do you want to feel the horrors of Sisyphus and Tantalus amid the grotesqueries of Escher-like architectural glitching in the European countryside? Me too, and what a tour guide.
Published in 1955, read in The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century Ghost Stories ed. Michael Cox (1996)
A lot of my exposure to short stories comes through listening to readings or dramatizations on the radio, and my habit of falling under their thrall leads to many scorched shirts abandoned mid-ironing and dishes left unwashed in the sink. The BBC iPlayer Radio app portions its ‘Drama’ into particular (often baffling) genre categories, and generally my thumb slips to the ‘Horror/Supernatural’ and ‘Psychological’ labels. When the continuity announcer gave a quick precis for the day’s story and a rumbling, stern voice introduced itself (‘This is Ray Bradbury…’) I almost unplugged my headphones: I had decided I knew what ‘Sci-fi’ meant, was and could be, and that it could not possibly hold anything for me. I was an idiot, and soon an agog, reformed idiot with something in their eye.
Men are drifting in space. ‘They were scattered into a dark sea; and the ship, in a million pieces, went on, a meteor swarm seeking a lost sun.’ Their communication channels are still open, and they are able to talk for a short while as they spin further and further apart.
Original story, published 1951, adapted drama broadcast in 1991 which I believe you can hear here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjeiHRm8LNE
“Well, then, excuse my curiosity,” the one with the freckled voice asked, “but who lives here?”
A primer in how to be short, how to get away with ‘freckled voices’, how to let an ending howl beyond a page.
Read in Vintage’s 1996 Numbers in the Dark: And Other Stories translated by Tim Parks. Available to read here
A story about growing up and cutting things down to shape, this is McCullers at her coffee-bitter best. Maybe we all enjoy stories where we learn things – not in terms of trivia or pop quizzes, but when we’re allowed to see thoughts and corollaries of actions played out. The characters’ conversation here seemed a true picture of how questions and learning and keeping alert can be part of innocence, and how that can be treasured, without feeling cloying. Never cloying, McCullers: revelation.
The man leaned his head down and tapped his forehead on the counter. For a few seconds he stayed bowed over in this position, the back of his stringy neck covered with orange furze, his hands with their long warped fingers held palm to palm in an attitude of prayer.
First published November 1942 in Harper’s Bazaar, and collected in Ballad of the Sad Café. available to read online here
Miscommunication, antic disposition, voyeurism, glee– this translation of one of Aichinger’s most famous stories provides windows upon windows upon windows. Simply expressed and made to linger long in the mind, this was my first experience of the prizewinning writer and her dark, precise prose styling and the start of an ongoing pursuit on my part to read more of her work.
Translated by Eric Mosbacher. Republished by Copy Press in The Bound Man and Other Stories.
“The roughs had also fled at the appearance of Peterson, so that he was left in possession of the field of battle, and also of the spoils of victory in the shape of this battered hat and a most unimpeachable Christmas goose.”
“Which surely he restored to their owner?”
“My dear fellow, there lies the problem.’”
This Conan Doyle story is not one of the detective’s most high-stakes adventures, but hits all the right Holmesian buttons: disguises, esoteric ‘deductions’, intrigue, put-out members of London-based aristocracy and thwarted fowl play. The relationship between arrant HoImes and his chronicler is pitched perfectly and has a real brusque sweetness, while the ‘Cuvier’s feather’-style extrapolation of details to further the plot makes this a sheer pompy, almost-pulpy joy. I read it every Christmas and use the phrase and notion of disjecta membra with horrid vigour.
First heard as part of the BBC Radio 4 dramatisation of the Sherlock Holmes canon starring Clive Merrison and John Williams, broadcast between 1989 and 1998. Originally published in the Strand Magazine, January 1892.